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Given that assimilation and appropriation of external culture traits/features is a means through which a culture evolves and shifts as an organic entity, at what point or level do we, as socially conscious participants of a living culture, differentiate or distinguish between culture theft and cultural evolution? Does cultural evolution require these kinds of parasitic social behaviors? Are there appropriate and acceptable avenues for the inclusion and assimilation of external traits/features without falling into the realm of culture theft?

I asked this question on Facebook a few months ago trying to see what people thought and no one really had anything to say. So I'm going to try it here. There are lot of intelligent, socially aware people in this community and I'd like to hear their opinion on this.

geist171 6 July 18

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Ha, he, he, Ha, he, he


We probably need to remind ourselves that culture, no matter how one defines it, is a choice. As a social construct, culture is not part of our DNA, and may be adopted, shaped or abandoned, as one wishes.


They go hand in hand. They always have and always will.

That's an unfortunately practical and realistic response.


I don't understand why this is even a thing. Did not our ancient brethren venture out and conquer and rape and pillage and force their cultures on the defeated? Did not trade routes open to the general benefit of most, introducing products and practices and cultures of those they traded with? Is that not the way of the world in general? So why are some people upset about this?

Just because a thing has been done a certain way in the past does not make it ethical or socially responsible.

The slave trade survived on your exact line of thinking for hundreds of years in the face of social pressures to stop it. "That's just how it has been done, it's the way of the world."

The whole idea is to work to be a more ethical, socially conscious, society as a species. And we can only do accomplish that by honestly looking at our past actions and making active efforts to change how we interact with other peoples.

@geist171 ok but I thought we were talking about cultural appropriation.
I mean...cultures blend. Whether by force or choice. I don't understand how adopting new customs because they're better ideas or more attractive can be called "stealing". I'll welcome explanations on that.

@Freespirit64 there's a difference between cultural integration which is the blending of cultural ideas and culture theft, which is where one group adopts something created by another group and then claims credit for originating it or actively derides the contributions of the first group.

Chuck Berry was a major progenitor of rock music, but it was derided as 'the Devils music' and the people making money off him didnt compensate him correctly for his work, and then Elvis did it and everyone loved it as long as it was white people doing it it was an American Cultural phenomenon. That''s 'appropriation' or 'theft' of culture.


Here's an entertaining look at 'cultural appropriation' from YouTuber T1J (the1janitor).


Are you talking about the theft of culture ore merely the theft of artifacts?

I am speaking about the phenomenon known as "culture theft" whereby members of one culture assimilate a cultural feature (music, hairstyle, fashion, etc.) and either refuse to acknowledge or deride members of the culture from which the feature was assimilated, and without attributing that culture as being the originator of the feature. The prime example I've been using so far has been the difference in how, we, culturally, approached rock and roll music as opposed to how we have culturally approached rap and hip hop.

Rock and roll was a form of music originated by black people. People like Chuck Berry, who were derided and whose musical contributions were dismissed, until Elvis Presley started to co-opt that music into country/western to create the genre we now consider "rockabilly."

Meanwhile rap and hip hop have always been attributed to black culture, and while our responses to it as a culture have been racist, white people began using the art form as a means of expression, but never actually tried to posit or claim that it started anywhere other than black culture.

Other examples are ta moko (Maori tribal tattooes) and a lot of black and latino/a hairstyle trends have seen a rise in popularity among white people, and those people, as collective demographics, seem to be a little bit pissed off about it (because it's totally an instance of culture theft. As a cultural paradigm black and brown people's hair have been regarded in a negative light for decades and all of a sudden white people are cool with it and spending millions if not billions trying to copy it.)

The theft of artifacts is an entirely separate, and entirely repugnant practice, and as an industry/business model are very frequently heavily related to/connected to war profiteering and black market operations in surplus arms and drugs.


I suppose that the concept of "cultural theft" is specifically American, because I have never heard of it before in Germany. It does not make sense to me, as "culture" is nothing that can be owned by anybody - and without the underlying concept of "ownership" the concept of "theft" is meaningless.
Ideas can be owned by those who came up first with them (= "intellectual property" ) , but a whole culture...?

A culture consists of many artifacts, values and ideas, and all of them can move more or less freely between communities, just like genetic material can move among bacteria. Cultural cross-fertilization is as old as humanity...

Matias Level 8 July 18, 2018

Consider rock and roll music, rap music, totem poles, spirit animals, cornrows...these are traits and features which are attributed to/originate from other cultures, which are then presented as originating from another culture, who offer no compensation or credit to the people who originated the idea.

Another example is ta moko, the Maori tribal tattooes. Those tattoos have distinct secular meanings and are imprinted upon a person as a representation of events in their life and part of their actual specific identity.

A white person who gets a ta moko (especially if they just copy someone else's tattooes) because it 'looks cool' is actually committing not only cultural theft, but identity theft as well.

@geist171 If you steal something from me, you infringe on my possibility to use my property as I wish. If you steal my car, I can no longer use it. If you steal my intellectual property, for example the song I created, I can no longer make money with that song as I did before.

All the examples you mention are cultural transfer, one culture adopt ideas or practices some other people invented. Did the Maori invented tatoos? Or maybe did their ancestors adopt it (or "stole" it) from some neighbor tribe long ago?
When we in the West adopt tatoos or a music style Black people created, the possibility of those who used it before is not infringed. The Maori can still practice their traditions like they did before. Black people could still play the Blues like they did, even after white musicians started to adopt this kind of music.

The whole concept : that "a culture" (what is that anyway?) "owns" some idea is rubbish. Only natural and legal persons can own things or ideas. Do we Germans "own" our words? Did Americans, when they adopted German words like "kindergarten" or "zeitgeist" steal our property? Nonsense.

@Matias I believe you are both oversimplifying and engaging in a semantic argument to avoid the point at hand. In either case, I think I'm done. If you're trying to tell me that my college education in anthropology is worthless because "culture" doesn't exist as a tangible property of a society as you understand it, I don't think anything I can say will convince you otherwise, to try would be fruitless for the both of us.

@geist171 A semantic argument? Well, you should know what "theft" means when you talk about "cultural theft".

You may not notice it, but you are subscribing to a myth that is dear to, and used by right-wing activists here in Europe: the myth of cultural identity: That each people (Volk, peuple) has its own specific homogeneous (!) culture, just like it has its own space, and this situation should remain as it is, without movement of persons, ideas, practices... To each "Volk" its own cultural bubble.

But this cultural "identity" is a myth, a fiction. Maybe you should read "L'identité culturelle n'existe pas" by Francois Jullien to see how misguided this myth is.
For people like you, cultural cross-fertilization, the free movement of ideas and practices, is what "miscegenation" is for white supremacists...


Your attempt to make a distinction between the two is moot and irrelevant.

Strongly disagree, but thanks for popping by.


I wonder why people get cranky about cultural appropriation. I thought imitation was flattery. The last cranky video I saw was about white girls getting black girl hair-dos. Could there possibly be a good reason for complaining or is it a sign of having very little troubling you?

I believe it's a matter of 'you took this thing that was ours, pretended it was yours and refused to acknowledge our contribution.

I think the easiest examples I can come up with are musical

Culture theft: rock and roll
Culture growth/inclusion: rap and hip hop.

We (white people) assimilated rock with rockabilly crossover artists like Elvis and ignored or derided the black contributions to the genre while lauding its white participants.

Rap and hip-hop are absolutely something that we assimilated into our culture, but we also openly acknowledge, and not always in a respectful way, that those forms of music are something we adopted from black culture, are an expression of black culture in our society, and that white people just also happen to engage it as a practice or form of entertainment.

A few different reasons actually, and black hair providers an almost TOO perfect example case here.

  1. Credit. When the appropriating culture gets credit for the thing they stole. It's usually something that's been done without recognition for years, decades, or even centuries without their due, but suddenly becomes "popular" once appropriated. When cornrows suddenly become "boxer braids," Black Twitter WILL throw a fit and generations of the African diaspora WILL roll in their graves. Along with credit tends to come...
  2. Compensation. Staying with the given example, black hair care is a multi-billion dollar industry. That's way too much money to accuse someone of having "very little troubling" them. An even better example here though can be found in music. It's happening with Hip Hop right now, but I'll talk about something you might be more familiar with; Rock & Roll. Rock music IS black music. It was invented by black people. White people wanted nothing to do with it -it was derided as, among other things, "devil music"- until they did. When it became clear how lucrative it could be, white people stormed the gates, Elvis Presley became "The King," and nobody remembered that this was a black genre anymore. All you have to do is look at how many Elvis songs were blatantly STOLEN from (as in previously written AND performed by) black men and women. Conversely, you can look at the looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong line of white people that Chuck Berry had to sure to get his due. To paraphrase a great Hip Hop quotable, Chuck Berry was your favorite artist's favorite artist, and they weren't even the least bit bashful about ripping him (or any other black artist) off. This naturally segues into...
  3. Unequal treatment. I'll go back to the hair example because I can't think of a more poignant one. When my daughters can't wear any of their generations-old cultural hair styles, including natural (literally the way it grows out of their damn heads) to school, a professional job, or the military, but white people take them and are considered "edgy," or "stylish," or "avant-garde," (!?) how exactly am I supposed to feel?
    When the same cultural cues that see our young people harassed, criminalized, brutalized, and gunned down with impunity are taken by non-black youth and just shrugged off as "Oh, they're just kids...," how am I supposed to react!?
    So to be clear, imitation is the highest form of larceny. Let's call a spade, a spade, yeah?

@ghettophilosopher yeah music was the easiest avenue I could find to explain the distinction, and rock is one of the big glaring instances (I'd say jazz is another)

But I think we (as a culture) have done a (slightly) better job of giving credit where credit is due where rap and hip hop are concerned, even if our cultural and authoritative response to its participants is...racist and bombastic.

Baby steps, I guess?

Excellent response though.

@ghettophilosopher Maybe white people should resent black people wearing suits. Perhaps resent Jessye Norman singing opera and black actors playing Hamlet.


Personally, I don't care about "culture".
Historically speaking, neither does humanity.


If you want to look at an example of cultural exchange without dominance, look at the west's cultural relationship with Japan.

You mean apart from the whole 'we dropped an extinction level event on your culture twice and then as part of your surrender made you agree not to have a standing military?'

Which, make no mistake they made the best of and took the opportunity to become a global economic, artistic, and technological power in their own right.

But I would consider winning a war with nuclear armament Dominance, at least perceived Dominance.

@geist171 yep, but I'm talking about the current relationship, especially when it comes to youth culture. I'd say they unashamedly appropriate from the west without the slightest hint of cultural cringe or subservience.

@MrBeelzeebubbles I'd say it's a pretty fair exchange given all the weeaboos and fetishists we have in this country

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